Shakespeare’s play Richard III has always been one of his most popular dramas. And no wonder: it features a compelling protagonists in a great story. Many people accept Shakespeare’s version of the history of the end of the Plantagenet and the beginning of the Tudor period without question, and historians who have spent years trying to unpick the truth regarding this period are not surprisingly annoyed by Shakespeare’s casual approach.
I wrote a few years ago about the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton and its burial in Leicester Cathedral. The work devoted to this subject at last enabled Richard’s life to be examined in a more balanced way.
Now a new documentary reopens the question of Richard III’s villainous reputation. The series Lucy Worsley Investigates takes the most scandalous story of the time, the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. The programme is available on I-Player.
It was an event of national significance. The 12 year old son of the late king Edward IV and his young brother disappeared during the summer of 1483 after being put in the Tower of London allegedly for their protection. Their uncle Richard had been appointed Protector and when their legitimacy was called in question Richard took the throne for himself. Shortly afterwards they disappeared.
There are many gaps in the historical record: reliable witnesses and evidence are in short supply when it comes to this story, one of the reasons why there is still so much disagreement.
One contemporary report that has survived was written by Dominic Mancini. Mancini happened to be in London for the first half of 1483. On his return to France just before the coronation he wrote a report for his Patron the Archbishop of Vienne. Mancini had no particular axe to grind and praised Richard’s military record and his popularity as a leader in the north of England. But he repeats the rumours he had heard while in London that Richard had murdered the princes. The document is not a new discovery as it was found in Lille in 1934, then published in an English version in 1936, but it shows that there may still be other documents waiting to be uncovered. David Crowther’s The History of England podcast and blog contains lots of quotes and information.
Thomas More’s account established Richard III as a villain, and was printed in sources known to have been used by Shakespeare. Another document under discussion has been discovered by Professor Tim Thornton. It offers a solution to the mystery of where Thomas More got his account of the murder. Shakespeare too picked up some of the details in a speech by James Tyrrel:
The tyrannous and bloody act is done;
The most arch deed of piteous massacre
That ever yet this land was guilty of.
Dighton and Forrest, who I did suborn
To do this piece of ruthless butchery –
Albeit they were flesh’d villains, bloody dogs –
Melted with tenderness and mild compassion,
Wept like two children, in their deaths’ sad story
21st century science has sometimes cast doubt on the findings of earlier researchers. In the 17th century bones thought to be those of the princes were discovered, accepted as genuine, and buried in Westminster Abbey. The urn was opened in the 1950s and results published in an academic paper, but the findings are now in doubt. Professor Turi King, one of the scientists who worked on the identification of Richard III’s skeleton, agreed that the research was flawed. But even with DNA profiling and carbon dating she concluded there was no legitimate reason to reopen the urn and ethical concerns prevent further research being undertaken. There’s a parallel here with Shakespeare’s tomb. Every so often someone suggests opening it, but it’s good to know that curiosity alone would not justify this action.
Worsley is Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and her visits to libraries, museums, archives and historic buildings make this a delightful series. Her interviews with the enthusiastic researchers and painstaking specialists show how incremental gains in knowledge can built up a case. And it’s good to see so much cross-disciplinary work going on.
Her conclusion is that Richard was indeed guilty. Detectives always look for a person with the motive and opportunity, and he had both. And In the violent dog eat dog world of the late 15th century there was little space for moral scruples.
If you want to catch the play live, Shakespeare’s Richard III is about to be produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and in a first for the Company the actor playing Richard is himself disabled.